Tag Archives: United Methodist Church

Jack Crum Conference on Love Our Neighbors

I came home from the Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministries in Durham this evening both encouraged and discouraged. I was encouraged by the prophetic voices that spoke and encouraged us to keep on in the struggle to make the United Methodist Church live up to its motto. I was discouraged that in spite of weeks of publicity and promotion, only 63 people (not counting speakers and guests) showed up. I think it is indicative of how the progressive arm of the United Methodist Church is struggling to find traction in the recalcitrant majority of clerics who are fearful of their careers and unwilling to take risks if it involves their retirement benefits. We have a sympathetic Bishop in North Carolina who is restricted by the legal authority of her position to uphold the Book of Discipline, and who even advertised the meeting on the NC Conference web site.

The fact is the Methodists are dragging their feet on LGBT issues in comparison with the other mainline denominations that have moved on to other issues.   Some of the clergy present acknowledged that they have moved on to other denominations where they serve as ordained elders without fear of reprisal or intimidation. Such is the hypocrisy of the United Methodist Church that clergy who lie or wink can be ordained, but those who are truthful or honest cannot. That was the traditional practice 50 years ago, but it is an abomination today.

I also was struck by the fact that the majority of those in attendance at the conference were allies rather than gays or lesbians. That is only a reflection of the obvious fact we as a group have either never been a part of an organized church or have left because we were unwelcome and regarded as second-class members. The church will take our money, but we can’t serve in leadership positions or be openly recognized, particularly if it involves our spouse.

A friend and I discussed the criticism that he has received for remaining as a member of the church that is so backward in its polity.   Why doesn’t he just leave and go to another denomination that is more relevant to the needs of today’s society? It’s simple. We were born and raised Methodists, and that not only reflects our common belief, but also is the home and source of our support in spite of what the official policies of the church may be. We are in communion with others in our congregation, and that is where we feel at home.

The church is SO distracted by the issue of same-sex marriage and unthinking of the idea of evangelism to the disposed that we risk the hazard of becoming irrelevant in the face of an increasingly secularized society. Are we presumptuous to claim that (LGBT) people are the new face of the civil rights movement in America, and that it is being fought not only in the legislatures but also in the churches? I think not. Today the parallels between homophobia and racism were again brought clearly into focus. We have not resolved either issue, and it is a long road ahead that deserves our best energies and efforts.

 

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Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church Webcast

I just finished watching the web cast of the panel of eight bishops, and I was disappointed just as I was in the book of that name that was published by the Council of Bishops last spring. (Find my review of the book in my blog post of June 20th.) I found the talk of unity disingenuous since the reality is clearly that the church is not united on this issue.   One of the Twitter commenters stated that he didn’t like being described as an “issue” rather than a human being and noted there were no LGBT people on the panel discussing the issue of homosexuality.

I suppose the two webcasts and the book are efforts to fulfill the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but I felt they lacked the spirit of his intentions. His method involves scripture, tradition, experience and reason as four different sources of theological or doctrinal development. The current buzzword is to pray for discernment. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries emphasized tradition and official established church doctrine as the only sources, with very few options for personal beliefs, insights, or enlightenment. Wesley formed the Holiness Societies to not only study the scripture but also to discuss them in the light of their own experience, to reason together as to how they would be most applicable to the circumstances of their time, and to be accountable to each other. The Methodist Church must be held accountable for the damage this long debate and the resulting animosity have caused.

The Evangelical tradition of some Protestant Denominations has placed the scripture as the sole source of doctrine or dogma, and declares that it has been fixed in place for 500 years without regard to translations, exegetical research, original manuscripts, or other issues related to the intended meaning of the actual words in the King James English translation of the Bible. “It means what it says it means,” except of course the 16th Century English that was archaic at the time does not have the same meaning as contemporary English today. The purists claim that progressives are heretics who diminish the true intention of the Holy Scriptures by interpreting them in the context of our modern culture. Of course, they choose to ignore the context of the culture in which those scriptures were originally written down. The writings were compiled after centuries of oral traditions and were not established as the canon until hundreds of years later. (So much for the difficulties of reading and interpreting scripture.)

I still get the feeling that Jesus must have felt in discussing the law with the Pharisees and the Sadducees who claimed that all that was necessary to a good life was to fulfill the law as prescribed by Moses. Jesus taught that we are required to understand and to apply the heart as well as the letter of the law.

And so for 42 years we have been haggling over the wording in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which is the official dogma of the church. The legislative body of the church, the General Conference, has debated this wording and modified some sections but still retained the principal condemnation that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Political camps have maneuvered every four years with little progress.

The devotees of the status quo claim that because the majority have voted at General Conference, then in the urgency of unity we must all obey and observe that dogma if we are to maintain the integrity of the church and the sanctity of the scriptures. We don’t have people calling out publicly that homosexuals are going to hell or that homosexuality is a sin anymore, but it is clearly implied by our policies.

So why do we get so hung up on seven deadly scriptures that are cited to use the Bible as a club to attack and condemn people rather than to use the Bible how we can best learn to live together in charity and to reach out to everyone to bring them to Christ no matter who they are?

Any church that is preoccupied with maintaining the status quo, regardless of the issue, rather than reaching out in its primary mission of evangelism is doomed to failure. If nothing else, it eventually becomes irrelevant to the needs and concerns of society and becomes defensive in self-perpetuating itself. When dogma has been revealed to not only be damaging to individuals but also to the grace of the church itself, what justification can be given of the primacy of the need to maintain unity? Am I suggesting the United Methodist Church separate as it did over the “issue” of slavery? No, but I do believe the endless dialogue is not productive if it leads to no resolution.   The Jews love to debate the Midrash, but that is not the Christian tradition of how we understand the scriptures.

 

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Finding Our Way in the Methodist Church

Last week I attended the annual conference of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina. I helped host the exhibit of the Reconciling United Methodists group, and we received a lot of interest, comments, and questions. Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that we were the first table as you entered the Greenville Convention Center from the parking lot, and secondly because we gave out free water and snacks. Even those who disagreed with us came by for water and goodies so at least we reached some level of their consciousness. I set a record of one 40-minute conversation with an earnest and questioning young man who raised the pointed question of whether homosexuality is a sin. He couldn’t get a straight (pardon the pun) answer from our bishop, and the same is true about a new book that was distributed at the Cokesbury store at the conference. Titled Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church, the small paperback book includes an introduction and three sections: options, responses, and steps. It includes commentaries by eight UMC bishops on the issue of the controversy about homosexuality, including ordination, marriage, church trials, the Discipline (the official doctrine of the UMC), the role and the institution of General Conference (held every four years), and suggestions for bridging the breach that has developed over the past 42 years since it was first discussed at General Conference in 1972. But for all the posturing, logical debate, and search for unity, none of them directly addressed the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin. They frequently quoted the wording of the Discipline that it is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which still dances around the question. Several recent books directly address the issue by citing the so-called “gotcha” Bible scriptures that are quoted as addressing the issue. Some challenge whether these scriptures are citing same sex practices or discussing temple prostitution, gang rape, cultural norms of the 1st Century, or historical Christian traditions. After all, the traditional marriage in Bible times was polygamy. While I view it as counter productive to debate various interpretations of these scriptures because you are unlikely to change anyone’s interpretation of them and thus waste time that could be addressed to other issues, the debate over church dogma ultimately depends upon how the church’s doctrine posits its polity based on these scriptures. A recent book review in Christianity Today predictably challenged Mathew Vines interpretation in his book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (see my blog post of May 19th.) Thus, the theologians will contain to debate the scriptures as they have done for centuries, and the conflict between orthodoxy and so-called heresy will continue as it has done for more than 2,000 years. Although the conflict started with the very beginning in the establishment of the Christian church after the death of Jesus Christ (he was a practicing Jew), it reached its nadir in the 16th Century with the Inquisition. Fortunately, we’re not putting people on the rack in the current debate, but we’re still doing a lot of damage not only to individual lives but also to organized religion that is struggling to discover its relevance in today’s society. If we continue to be preoccupied with internal debates over dogma while the world dies of starvation not only for food but also for salvation, we are being sidetracked from our mission. So some people say just quit the debate or go away or form another denomination or just listen to the Holy Spirit to resolve the conflict. The Holy Spirit seems to have been silent in our discernments at conferencing in the United Methodist Church, and I’m not sure that bishops’ contributions have clarified or obscured the issue. It seemed to me there was a lot of pontificating, but then I guess that’s what Bishops do. I found it interesting that only one quoted the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Are we here to maintain order and the status quo, or are we here to grow the church in every sense of the word?

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Battle for the Methodist Church

Sunday, Feb 9th, Rachel Zoll posted an article on the Associated Press a very good historical summary of the issue of gay marriage and the controversy within the United Methodist Church. She noted that while other mainline Protestant denominations slowly have been moving to accept gays into the clergy as well as offer rites to same sex couples, the Methodist Church for 40 years has continued to be divided on this issue.

She quoted from the Book of Discipline and its restrictions on gays and outlined some of the recent trials of pastors who have not observed those restrictions. She draws the battle lines between the Reconciling Ministries Network, The Good News, and the Wesleyan Covenant Network with their opposing views on the issue.

She gave a good and brief explanation of how the Methodist General Conference works as the legislative body of the denomination but skipped over the details of how the Judicial Council and the local bishops decide who and when to prosecute for violations of the restrictions. In fact, the church trials are highly arbitrary and depend on many factors. The divisiveness is not just between the delegates to the General Conference but also among the Council of Bishops and among the clergy, 1,100 of whom signed on to a resolution to support gay marriage. Many retired bishops and clergy have supported removing the restrictions as a matter of “biblical conscience”, and also because of the fact that they’re no longer subject to the church politics and trying to keep their jobs.

In addition to loss of credentials for clergy who are found guilty in church trials (which prevents them from serving as elders but does not prevent them from serving as local staff), they also lose their retirement and insurance benefits that many worked for years to receive.  So it is a very severe penalty and not just a slap on the wrist.

Rev. Frank Schaefer was “ex-communicated” at his trial last year and has since preached as a guest pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, and at the UCC Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, TX.  His trial and subsequent appearances have received national publicity. A much earlier trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech resulted in the publication last year of his book: Adams’Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays that not only challenges the church’s position on the issue but also on the highly arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which it is applied to both clergy and lay people. He toured around the nation in 2013 promoting the book and speaking in many pulpits.

Some are calling for an open split in the denomination similar to what occurred prior to the Civil War over the issue of slavery.   The denomination was not re-united until 1939, and in 1969 joined with the United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church.  The next General Conference will be held in 2016 and probably will again consider this issue.

 

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The hypocrisy of the United Methodist Church

The recent news about the Methodist pastor who lost his credentials for defying the Book of Discipline by marrying his gay son is not only a sad commentary about the rigidity of the United Methodist Church polity, but it is another story in a long saga of discrimination and hypocrisy by church officials.  They haven’t followed a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; they have said it is acceptable to lie and ignore your conscience but not to tell the truth.  It seems a strange irony that the new Pope appears to be assuming a more charitable and rationale approach to this ecclesiastical controversy, while the leaders of this Protestant denomination continue to insist on compliance with the letter of the law.  Didn’t Jesus free us from the Pharisees?

It seems to me to be more an issue of church politics than addressing a moral dilemma.  Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality even though he condemned divorce, which is acceptable in the United Methodist Church.  Those who choose to proof text a few verses of scripture to support their position of hatred and discrimination risk penalty themselves for not loving the poor and the needy as the Bible tells us to do.  “Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is a cop-out in that it presupposes that what God has created is sinful.  It really doesn’t matter whether homosexuality is a question of choice or not.  Our response to homosexuals in the church is an issue of evangelism in that Jesus commanded that we love one another without conditions and that we bring the good news of salvation to the entire world— not just to some who meet our criteria.

Our government is coming to see homosexuals as having the same civil rights as others and that discrimination against a persecuted minority is wrong.  During the Inquisition the church killed people in the name of preserving dogma. Today we are again seeing a human power play to persecute those who might challenge their episcopal authority.  It is not merely a difference in how to interpret the Bible.  The church went through that regarding slavery.  Today we face the question of fulfilling the promise of making this earth more like the Kingdom of God and thereby following the commandment of Jesus to make fellowship with him available to all—not just to some.  The Jewish Christians had to struggle with including the Gentiles; we are struggling with the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Those psychological terms were not a part of the 1st Century vocabulary.

The real tragedy is this: we are responsible for those who have been lost to Christ because of the church’s condemnation and unwillingness to include them in the good news and mercy of Jesus. We may not have directly killed those who chose to take their own lives because they could not reconcile their core inner selves with the judgment of some church officials, but we certainly bear some responsibility.  Let God be the judge—not me.

 

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